Archive for July, 2024

Lord of the Flies

Decades ago, in school, I had to read William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, a book about middle-school-age boys marooned on an island, and how all the social norms quickly disintegrate into unvarnished cruelty in the absence of adult supervision.

I found the book all-too-true-to-life then, and recent revelations in social media suggest that the nature of “pre-adults” hasn’t changed much from what Golding perceived, if in a different context, that context being social media, where “adult” supervision is sadly lacking.

A recent New York Times story revealed how “seventh and eighth graders in a Pennsylvania town set up fake TikTok accounts impersonating teachers and shared disparaging, lewd, racist and homophobic videos.” Investigations revealed that roughly a quarter of the school’s faculty discovered they were victims of fake teacher accounts rife with pedophilia innuendo, racist memes, homophobia and made-up sexual hookups among teachers. In addition, students created 22 fictitious TikTok accounts impersonating teachers at the middle school. Hundreds of students soon viewed, followed, or commented on the fraudulent accounts.

The only disciplinary action was the brief suspension of several students and a lecture to an eighth grade class. Most interestingly, few of the perpetrators exhibited any remorse for their actions.

Not only has social media helped normalize anonymous aggressive posts and memes, leading some children and teenagers to weaponize them against adults, but it’s also fostered an attitude that destroying reputations, bullying other users, and attacking others with falsehoods is acceptable. Teen suicides have increased by more than 60% since 2007 and continue to rise with the growth in social media use.

Currently, social media linked suicides are primarily in the 10-25 age group, but what will happen when older individuals are increasingly targeted and their reputations savaged anonymously? And with the increase and technical sophistication of “deepfakes,” how long before no one will be able to verify the difference between real and fake – and what happens in an increasingly “online” world, when no one can trust anything or anyone?

Toning Down the Rhetoric

After Saturday’s attempted assassination of Trump, a wave of media comments issued forth along the lines of “tone down the rhetoric’ and “hatred and violence have no place in the United States.”

Most of the commentators, well-meaning as they appeared to be, seemed to forget who exactly had been the one who started the “hate talk,” with his calls to his supporters to “fight like hell” on January 6th, calls that touched off the attack on and invasion of the US Capitol. Over the next three years, Trump fanned the flames with various extremist posts, including calling anyone who opposed him “communists, Marxists, fascists and the radical left thugs that live like vermin within the confines of our country,” saying that shoplifters should be shot on the spot, and proposing deporting eleven million people. Not to mention restricting women’s ability to control their own bodies and opposing any additional limitations on firearms (which is ironic in itself, given that he was shot with an AR-style 556 rifle).

Yet when those opposed to Trump’s views of imposing a right-wing authoritarian government pointed out the loss of freedoms involved, and the restrictions on democracy those would entail, the Trumpists called those opponents extremists, and, now, after the Pennsylvania shooting, many in the media are telling everyone to tone down the rhetoric, conveniently forgetting who dialed it up in the first place.

The other media/popular misconception is the characterization of the United States as a peaceful society. This misconception is embedded in most of the media commentary about how this violence wasn’t what America was all about.

More than fifty years ago, H. Rap Brown said, “Violence is as American as apple pie.” He was unfortunately right. The United States was created by violence. The South was originally built on the violence of slavery. New England, the upper Midwest, and the great American West were subdued and the indigenous peoples conquered and suppressed by violence. We’re so violent a society that, with only five percent of global population, the U.S. has more than 20% of the world’s prison population. Since 1970, our incarcerated population has increased by 500%, far outpacing population growth and crime.

Yes, we’ve made an effort to channel and conquer that violence, but the U.S. is one of the more violent countries in the world – in large part because an unspoken part of our culture is the freedom to be violent, so long as it’s not too violent.

The problem with Trump remains. That problem is that he believes violence and power in support of his ends are justified, and he and his followers also believe that those who point out his desire to destroy those freedoms Trump doesn’t like are evil extremists.

Far too much of the media is buying that “equation of extremism,” and now that Trump has already re-created himself as a “bloodied patriot,” it’s even more likely that, inadvertently or not, they’ll help him become President.

The Tragedy of Age

Throughout history, and in literature as well, we’ve tended to see two kinds of “age” tragedies – those of great individuals whose stars shone too brightly too early – from Alexander the Great to Orson Welles – and especially those who could have relinquished power at the peak of their greatness and who chose not to, only to see their reputation tarnished or destroyed in their efforts to hang on to power they struggled over a lifetime to obtain.

It doesn’t always happen this way, but it occurs often enough, largely because power tends to blind those who hold it, or to make them think that the inevitable won’t happen to them. Age is cruel. As the coach in Any Given Sunday says, as we get older, things get taken from us, often our judgement of what we can accomplish.

Joe Biden is no exception, both in losing capabilities he once had, and in failing to see that he’s lost some of his abilities. And, as in all tragedies, too many of those around him have a vested interest in not being truthful, while he is rightfully leery of trusting the truth spoken by his enemies because they want the power he is losing.

Then add Biden’s concerns about his opponent — a lying, conniving, power-mad narcissist who effectively wants to undermine if not overthrow the basis of democracy – and Biden’s belief (based more on the past than the present) that only he can stop Trump, and the United States faces a potential disaster well beyond Biden’s personal tragedy.

The entire scenario would make an incredible movie, but, in this instance, I’d definitely rather see the movie than be a bit player in the coming real-life reality show that combines the worst of King Lear and The Apprentice.

Please, Joe, open your eyes and exit gracefully, preferably stage left.

Unchanging Change

After more than fifty years in collegiate academia, my wife the professor has observed a lot. One of the most predictable aspects is what happens all too often when a new president, provost, or, occasionally, a new dean takes office. Too many of those individuals immediately want to change things, or as she puts it, to “reinvent the wheel.”

There are reasons for change, the most common being an attempt to improve the way things run, but all too often change only makes matters worse.

That’s because systems in any institution, whether political, commercial, or academic, come to be because they work. At times, they don’t function well, but they function after a fashion. Yet, seldom does any new administrator ask the most basic questions, such as how a system came to be, or whether the alternatives would be any better.

Usually, the system can’t be measurably improved because of the requirements placed on it. Improving the quality of education and the abilities of graduates requires asking more of both professors and students.

Asking more of students invariably results in more students failing, transferring, or complaining, if not all three. All of these reduce graduation rates at a time when professors are being pressured to increase graduation rates.

As most good teachers know, not all students learn in the same way, and the greater the diversity in students, the more that multiple different approaches are required to reach all the students. Any single approach will not reach some students. Reaching all students requires more time and/or more teachers, if not both. In the past, students whose learning styles weren’t addressed were effectively marginalized or flunked. Under current political conditions, this isn’t acceptable, and administrators pressure professors to use multiple approaches. Practically speaking, having a professor use multiple approaches without increasing the classroom time and homework or by keeping classes small (which aren’t economically feasible because universities are under pressure to keep costs down) means less material is taught, effectively dumbing down the curriculum.

At the same time, almost all college administrations require student evaluations of faculty. The majority of students downgrade demanding and challenging professors, and lower student evaluations result in adverse consequences for professors. So, often, the professors who require better work and accomplishments are rewarded less than “cheerleading” professors who require less… and professors who require excellence are often “counseled” to be more “positive” – or simply pushed out in one way or another.

The results are that, today, “cheerleading” seems to be prevailing, particularly because it keeps students happier and increases graduation rates.

This isn’t likely to change. Since the U.S. produces twice as many college graduates every year as there are jobs requiring a college degree, employers and graduate schools are cherry-picking the best graduates, and the employers are hiring a smaller percentage of graduates and using an increasing range of AI-styled systems, leaving a higher percentage of formerly “happy” students saddled with student loans they’ll have trouble repaying.

The system does work… after a fashion… but the increasing pressures on the universities and faculty result in more students flooding most campuses and less being learned by each student, while paying more.

This isn’t sustainable, but few in politics or academia will admit it, and those who try are usually marginalized or removed.

Change and the University

The usual reason for change in an organization is a professed desire to make the organization more effective and efficient. Yet many organizations, especially colleges and universities, make change after change without any significant improvements, and often those changes aren’t for the better.

Those running such organizations aren’t usually idiots; so why do they persist in seeking change that seldom results in anything but cosmetic change?

From what I’ve observed, they all believe that, in any organization, there’s room for improvement. And in an overall theoretical view, it often looks that way, but the problem is that too many managers/administrators are looking at managing people as if they were machines or tools.

In this sense, if largely subconsciously, the legislators in my home state of Utah regard colleges and universities in just that way. The state is paying the university in question to be a graduate-producing factory and the faculty and staff as machines in that factory, a factory that needs to increase the percentage of students obtaining degrees.

The factory analogy doesn’t work that well for colleges for several basic reasons. First, the raw materials (i.e., the students) aren’t, if you will, a standardized feedstock or even standardized parts. They exhibit a wider range of abilities, and over the years, universities have effectively been coerced and forced into accepting an ever-greater diversity of students.

Seventy-five years ago, that wasn’t nearly the case. Students were predominantly white males, largely from at least middle-class backgrounds, graded for possibilities and intelligence by standardized tests, and by far more rigorous secondary school grading than today. Colleges were designed to smooth off the rough edges and impart a basic ability to think and solve higher-level problems. Those with greater abilities, including the ability to roughly conform, were groomed for higher education in select professions. Along the way, those who lacked adequate intelligence (as measured by the system), lack of persistence, and lack of ambition (as defined by the system) were weeded out, with the result that in 1950, only a little more than 6% of Americans had a college degree.

Since then, universities have diversified the range of applicants that they accept and the fields of studies that they offer, so that 61% of high school graduates enter college, and over half of them graduate. As a result, today 54% of working age Americans have a college degree, either a four year degree or an two year associate’s degree, while census estimates for 2024 indicate 37% have a four year degree. On average, it also takes more time and resources, with 22% of students gaining bachelor’s degrees taking six years to do.

The U.S. higher education system has moved from a limited factory model where a high percentage of pre-selected students graduated (particularly those who survived their first year of college, since a number of state universities tended to flunk out disproportionate numbers of first year students in the years prior to 1960) to a non-factory model with far wider opportunity… but with a far higher cost for that education.

The second problem with the current factory model is that it doesn’t reflect the changes in the economy and society, yet politicians and too many educators tend to cling to the “factory model,” even though it’s no longer applicable, and keep tinkering with the system, year after year, seeking even higher graduation rates without realizing that roughly 40% of graduates end up unemployed or “underemployed” every year.

Tinkering with universities to increase graduation rates isn’t a solution particularly beneficial to students when there aren’t enough jobs for existing graduates, but I’ve yet to see any university leader or politician address that issue, most likely because universities have become job creation centers for not only the administrators, faculty, and staff, but also for the local community – especially if the college or university has a strong and profitable athletic department.

Given the astronomical cost of higher education, there’s also an incentive for the financial community to provide student loans. All the economic beneficiaries of college are supported largely by student tuition and fees, including the funds paid by the forty percent of the students who will never get a job making enough to pay off their loans.

But the pressure to increase graduation rates continues, even as college students, in general, learn less than their predecessors and pay more for that privilege.

Cold, Calculated, Cunning, and Cowardly

That’s my summary of the U.S. Supreme Court decision dealing with Donald Trump’s assertion that the President is immune from all criminal charges by virtue of his position.

Superficially, but only superficially, the decision makes sense. From the way I read it, as do virtually all legalists commenting thus far, the Court declares that the President is immune to criminal charges for actions related to his official duties, but is not immune for acts unrelated to his duties.

Unfortunately, the Supreme Court’s guidelines for what constitutes an official act are so broad that, effectively, almost all conversations and acts with other federal officials could be considered as part of his official duties, even deeds as clearly criminal as tasking special ops to remove a political opponent.

Yet, at the same time, the Supreme Court did not really define what duties were official and what were not and returned the case to the federal district court. This took months to determine?

But the delay and the guidelines effectively foreclosed Trump coming to trial before the election, both actions reflecting political calculations to benefit Trump, and cowardice in keeping the lower courts from making a decision before the election.

In real terms, the Court has overturned the long-standing precedent that no one, even the President, is above the law.

More important than that, however, the Supreme Court’s decision is another step toward establishing in law what amounts to an Imperial Presidency in which the President is answerable to no one – and that is truly frightening, since 150 years of futile attempts to convict an impeached President have proven that Congress is incapable of reining in the President.